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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Responding To More Listener Questions From “Brian Lehrer Show” Website

April 30th, 2008 · 3 Comments

I had promised to respond to some of the questions sent in by listeners on the “Brian Lehrer Show” website which we didn’t get to during the shows.

As a nation, we rarely talk about citizen preparedness publicly. Based on the phone and online reaction to the shows, it is clear that there is a lot of interest and uncertainty about the subject among the population. Yet, at present, there is no place for the public to ask those questions and get them answered. So, if I can help fill that gap a bit, I’m going to try to do so on this site and through other platforms.

Interview on Brian Lehrer WNYC Show

A post from ‘Steven from Brooklyn’ is reflective of a sentiment I heard during the series:

Consider that if it’s an event like a hurricane which you guys kept mentioning, there’s plenty of time to pack a go bag rather than grabbing the one with the stale chocolate bar in it. If it’s an event like 9-11, you probably won’t be near your go bag. And if it’s a (oh I don’t know, say) a dirty bomb or something like that, the real problem will be getting out of the city. It won’t much matter if you’ve got a “go bag” when you have nowhere to go.

On WNYC, we focused a lot of attention on making ‘go-bags’. But as Steven points out, what good is a ‘go-bag’ if you don’t have a place to go. Fair point. The reason we suggested making a ‘go-bag’ is that it is a relatively easy and tangible way for citizens to begin the preparedness process. But it is only one part.

There is a need for people to begin thinking about what they would do in the event of an emergency. That might mean ’sheltering in place’ at home or at the office, it might mean going to a shelter or in an extreme case it might mean evacuating your area.

However, in order for citizens to think about their evacuation (or stay in place) plans, they need the authorities to provide more information. There has to be some broader discussion about what are the scenarios we all might face and what would are options be. The government will not be able to provide detailed and accurate instructions for every citizen in every type of emergency, because it will depend on the situation at hand. However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be more openness about some of the most likely cases. So, when something happens, it is not the first time people are hearing about it. According to a recent New York City Office of Emergency Management survey, only 11% of New Yorkers say they know what to do in the event of a terror attack and 12% in a hurricane. The national numbers are even more anemic.

One valuable outgrowth of such a dialogue is that it would better aligh citizen expectations with the reality of government capability and put more of the responsibility with the public itself. In fact, a post from ‘Superf88′ is reflective of that public uncertainty about evacuation which needs to be addressed:

A few years ago during the power outages I was assuming that Homeland Security would be activating a system I had assumed they had established after a couple years in existence — which entailed private and government boats to evacuate folks from Manhattan to “mainland.” After all, I can’t imagine what *else* this homeland security could even do. Silly me — but do you know if such a system is yet in place?

‘Jeff from Manhattan’ posted a question that I hear a lot and asked myself at one point. In fact, it was the question that got me into this topic, the book and ultimately this blog.

Do you recommend getting potassium iodine in case of radiological attack and if so where do you recommend getting it?

After 9/11, there was a lot of discussion about Potassium Iodine (KI) as something that could be taken to deal with radiation. To learn more on the prompting of my wife, I visited Department of Homeland Security’s website Ready.Gov

“If there is a significant radiation threat, health care authorities may or may not advise you to take potassium iodide. Potassium iodide is the same stuff added to your table salt to make it iodized. It may or may not protect your thyroid gland, which is particularly vulnerable, from radioactive iodine exposure. Plan to speak with your health care provider in advance about what makes sense for your family”

So I asked my doctor about it. He told me that he didn’t suggest storing potassium iodide, because he didn’t think terrorists had the capability to deliver a nuclear attack (my italics). Now, I love my doctor but I went to him — and DHS recommended I do so — for his medical advice not his geopolitical analysis. Not making a firm recommendation will only lead to more confusion. Most experts I’ve spoken to do not think individuals should store KI less because of the possible threat and more because it will likely be misapplied without proper guidance. But it would be worth asking your doctor for his advice. It is likely that in the event of an attack KI would be distributed by the government. These are questions we need to be asking our elected officials and public health authorities so they provide us with the answers in advance rather than during an emergency.

What you should have an extra supply of is any prescription medicine that you need. However, that is not always easy to do under many insurance plans. Officials tell me that they are discussing the possibility of getting the companies to relax those restrictions if an event was imminent. That is obviously not ideal, but it would be better than the current situation.

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Tags: Q & A

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alan Morris // May 1, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Dear Mr. Lehrer:

    You should be careful about what you read from the government about potassium iodide (KI). It should not be too great a surprise to learn that the current administration has politicized this issue, and once again has put politics above science.

    In 2004, the US National Academy of Sciences issued a thorough and comprehensive report on KI that strongly endorsed its wide availability. But the Bush administration, earlier this year, decided to ignore the conclusions of this research group, and instead announced that a policy group (the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) had concluded that KI offered “negligible additional value” and consequently efforts to expand its availability would not be pursued. Thus, although millions of people could need KI in a radiation emergency, almost no one would be able to get it.

    Unfortunately, your optimistic assumption that “in the event of an attack KI would be distributed by the government” is incorrect since there is almost no KI to distribute. I know this, because the company I work for is the only US FDA approved manufacturer of KI tablets for radiation protection, and is the government’s sole supplier of the product.

    The KI story is a classic one, where the science is unquestioned, but the government’s response is political. In order to protect the perceived best interests of the nuclear industry, current radiological emergency response plans pay little attention to KI, but instead stress the immediate evacuation of millions.

    It’s like they don’t remember Katrina.

    Alan Morris
    Palm Harbor, FL

  • 2 Response To An Interesting Reader Post About Potassium Iodide // May 4, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    [...] the human thyroid from radiation in the event of a terror attack or nuclear accident. In my initial post, I had written: Most experts I’ve spoken to do not think individuals should store KI less because [...]

  • 3 superf88 // Jun 3, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Hey there, just coming across your reply now to my comment that I assumed Homeland Security’s activities would include organizing public/private evacuation. To your balking at the idea, I suggest you learn about/promote best practices from other countries (rather than suggesting that “citizens reallign their expectations!”). I’ve lived in Asia and am familiar with other countries as well — my thought was based on emergency plans already in place elsewhere. After all, organizing flotillas of private boats is both relatively cheap (compared to all alternatives) and a chance for public and private to do something patriotic beyond paying government to chase its tail. Look to China or Vietnam for starters in best practices as described.

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